In his famous essay, ‘Unpacking My Library’, the Jewish-Marxist thinker, Walter Benjamin, speaking about the passion of the book collector, writes: “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” Readers arrange their bookshelves in either a random or neat manner, but the arrangement mostly strains – and fails – to give us the impression of chronological time or ideological coherence. The story of bookshelves is a layered one, where memory lies disarranged, order is misleading and merely formal and radically dissimilar writers are often placed scandalously beside each other.
Just consider a random sampling from my own library: Roberto Bolaño lies beside Émile Zola, Nehru beside Nirad C. Chaudhuri, José Saramago beside the Zafarnama, Camille Paglia beside Svetlana Alexievich, Manto beside Gorky, Hannah Arendt beside Iqbal, Ambedkar beside Octavio Paz, Coetzee beside Elfriede Jelinek, Gandhi beside Kawabata, Dostoevsky beside Alberto Manguel, and the Quran flanked by Descartes and Vaclav Havel. This is the fun of bookshelves. We have books and authors across time, placed in chaotic harmony. If the bookshelves give an impression of our minds, it will reveal our desperate, lifelong efforts to think through their bewildering diversity and wonder about the human condition. Our certainties are too meagre to match the fountain of disparate thoughts that lie in the books we read. Bookshelves reveal our lack, despite all the enrichment we managed to steal, through years of reading.
Books, above all, are most dear to us because of the memory we associate with them. That memory is as precious to us as the contents of the book. For often fate leads us to books than simply choice. Books are stubborn. They will not reach our hands till we decide to pick them up. Through them, we estimate our value, even though we may not often understand everything they say. I remember picking up the Romanian cynic, E.M Cioran’s The Short History of Decay, from my favourite bookstore in Kolkata, Foreign Publishers, a small kiosk below The Oberoi Grand, in Park Street. It was the summer of 1991. I was visiting Kolkata for the first time on my own, pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Political Science in a small town near Guwahati. I hadn’t heard of Cioran. I was juggling the idea of taking The Short History or Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.
I hadn’t heard of Pirandello either. But browsing through Cioran’s sentences made me dizzy with excitement: “Chaos is rejecting all you have learned, Chaos is being yourself.”… “History is nothing but a procession of false Absolutes, a series of temples raised to pretexts, a degradation of the mind before the Improbable.”… “I feel safer with a Pyrrho than with a Saint Paul, for a jesting wisdom is gentler than an unbridled sanctity”… And these lines finally sealed my choice: “Look around you: everywhere, specters, preaching; each institution translates a mission; city halls have their absolute, even as the temples – officialdoms, with its rules – a metaphysics designed for monkeys… Society – an inferno of saviours! What Diogenes was looking for with his lantern was an indifferent man.”
No intimidation can rob me of this memory, unless my library is destroyed, and my books humiliated. I won’t forget the two friendly brothers who ran the kiosk, who used to reduce the price for me considerably, each time I brought a book from them. Those brothers run this nation and contribute to the mind of this nation, way better than its rulers who want to police the nation’s imagination. Those who have never visited a library are jealous of people who read, and out to insult the memory of their libraries. In October 2015, Romila Thapar, in her inaugural address at the launch of ‘Indian Cultural Forum’, spoke about the growing cultural intolerance in India. She reminded her audience that in Mao Tse-tung’s dubious ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China, “every polluting idea” was banned for years in the mainland. The resemblance is ironical, isn’t it? This is what the paranoia of power does across ideologies, wearing the robe of any colour, red or saffron. Even though Cioran could not turn me into a cynic, whenever I faced men and women carrying the badge of political certainties, I have often walked the night with no lantern in hand, looking for a sceptic like Diogenes.
All my Milan Kundera novels, brought with my pocket money from Modern Book Depot and Western Book Depot at Guwahati’s Pan Bazar area, are precious. Since 1991, when Rupa and Co. published Kundera, beginning with Immortality, at a thankfully cheaper price than the original publisher, Faber & Faber, I reviewed these books (including Life is Elsewhere, The Book and Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being), for the English daily, The Sentinel. It gave me an opportunity to tell my parents and smug, know-it-all Bengali neighbours, who aired misgivings about my future after I left an engineering course, that I was not altogether worthless. More importantly, it gave me the opportunity to meet Dhirendra Nath Bezbaruah, chief editor of the daily, who taught me when not to use italics.
It was Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting who warned us that the struggle against power is “the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Books are memories of journeys undertaken with dreams of a vague future. Dreams that beckoned us away from the four walls of home, and made us see, like Tagore’s Gora, beyond the idolatry of the nation. Books echo the possibilities of our liberty. If a regime instills fear in people regarding the possession of certain books, their authors instantly gain apocalyptic power. Writers have faced political repression. Their writings are a testament to their courage. And they bear a forewarning for prohibitory times.
I remember taking the Mumbai local train from Virar to Churchgate in the summer of 1998, to visit the Strand Book Stall. The bookstore closed down in February, this year. Apart from Sanskrit erotic poetry in translation, I bought Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands. In that book, Rushdie famously defines freedom of expression: “Without the freedom to offend it ceases to exist.” Rushdie speaks on behalf of all those readers (and writers) who have ideas that may be at odds with political regimes of the country. Such dissenting ideas are the “safety valve” the Supreme Court recently mentioned, without which the “pressure cooker” of the nation’s grievances may burst. Rushdie persuades us to acknowledge we are “translated men”, translated into many cultures, languages, cuisines and loves. Reading is part of this lifelong process of translation. We never know which book lies in our path, waiting to ambush us with an idea that challenges what we had previously held immutable. The experience is often partial, and unintended. Reading Marx did not turn me into a revolutionary. But it sensitised me to the exploitative character of capitalism, and the difficult relationship between labour and life.
Reading also fosters necessary contradictions. I was a big fan of Russian literature. I grew up hearing about Lenin and the wonderful fruits of revolution in erstwhile USSR. In the JNU library, I read Yevtushenko’s A Precocious Autobiography, the poetry of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam and was ravaged by doubts. I bought the hardbound copy of an unknown Russian writer, Vasily Rozanov’s The Apocalypse of Our Time and Other Writing, from the World Book fair at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan, for I loved aphoristic meditations. Rozanov loved writing, Russia and himself, to the point of loathing. He thought Tolstoy tried to be convincing as he lacked Dostoevsky’s power to move. He made fun of Gogol and embraced Gorky. He called positivism, “a philosophical mausoleum over dying mankind”. He called history “a monstrous character that devours men for food.”
Rozanov endorsed the revolution as a response to hunger, but decried it as a grand theatre of coldness, egotism and power. He made me deeply skeptical about the cultural impact of the revolution. How to assess a ‘minor’ writer of Russian literature? In The Noise of Time, Mandelstam hailed Rozanov, and spoke endearingly of the “the philological nature of his soul” and the “anarchistic, nihilistic spirit (that) recognised only one authority: the magic of language.” I always carry in my heart, Rozanov’s passionate plea for standing up to what we cherish: “Defend your love with your fingernails, defend your love with your teeth. Defend it against reason, defend it against authority.”
Writers have defied the norms of consensus, refused offering platitudes to power and upheld the dignity of the word. No self-respecting reader will read what is politically prescribed, what suits power. I remember reading the Somalian writer, Nuruddin Farah’s short essay, ‘Childhood of my Schizophrenia’, where he writes: “One of my elder brothers was fond of remarking that books were friendlier, wiser and more humane. After all, they didn’t hit you when they couldn’t answer your questions.” We learn early enough, that books are more tolerant than teachers, and elders. Books are our refuge against society’s petty shortcomings.
From the gentle chaos of these memories, the familiar names of writers, delivering my heart to forgotten streets, afternoons, sweats and fragrances, I cherish the half-remembered journeys of the reader. I carry memories of Fact & Fiction and The Bookworm, two bookstores in Delhi that closed down the surprises they always had in store. The reader survived the questions of life by looking for answers, and then learning to his surprise that there are no answers, just our difficult pleasure to look for them. Reading is a difficult pleasure. But under oppressive regimes, this difficulty is usurped by a limiting difficulty: Of having to answer for one’s love of reading itself and to feel humiliated for writers one loves. This is exactly the situation of a culture that is antithetical to the flowering of ideas and our valuable ties with memory.
When Gandhi was asked by a British journalist, what he thought of English civilisation, he replied with polite ambiguity, “I think it would be a good idea.” In the 71st year of our Independence, if we make people scared of the books they possess, this country, already reeling from enough terrible things, will come to be known worldwide as a bad idea.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. He is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India (Speaking Tiger Books, 2018).